Smart v/s Wealthy

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While you may think that being smart, motivated, and talented would logically make you wealthy, unfortunately, this is often not the case.

Smart and talented people often have a flair for the unusual, complicated, or different. They don’t like to follow the KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid), which is required to make money.

So, being smart or talented isn’t going to help you unless you can use those smarts to figure out a way to simplify those tasks that will make you money. This isn’t easy, because it goes against everything that you have ever done and is counter to how you were taught to think. However, it is necessary for a business to succeed and why smarts and talent alone don’t predict entrepreneurial success and hence wealth creation.

Too much to lose… and, with the most to lose, a wide range of other options available, and the penchant for more intricate, complex endeavors, don’t be surprised when the person “Most Likely to Succeed” from high school ends up in corporate America and one of the more average students finds success in his or her own business.

So what are the basics to know to make real money?

  1. Don’t get a salary. A salary will never make you money.
  2. Don’t try to save money by not buying stuff you need. That’s a myth. The best way to save money is to make more.
  3. Empower quality people by introducing them to each other. Introduce them and stay out of the way. This is real networking. Not fake networking where people hand business cards to strangers.
  4. When you have wealth, never invest more than 5% of your wealth in any one idea.
  5. Don’t enter regulated businesses or the ones with lots of competition. Enter a business with a monopoly. This means high profits, high perks, great education.
  6. Be around people who love you and whom you love. Eliminate people who bring you down.
  7. Look everywhere for what is hidden. The people who understand the wealth creation process hide the money very carefully. The people who don’t know have TV shows about it.
  8. Lose the bad habit of engaging in zero sum competitions with other smart people. Many smart people tend to flock to fields which are already saturated with other smart people. Only a limited number of people can become a top investment banker, law partner, Fortune 500 CEO or humanities professor. Yet smart people let themselves be funneled into these fields and relentlessly compete with each other for limited slots. They all but ignore other areas where they could be even more successful, and that are less overrun by super-smart people. Instead of thinking outside the box, smart people often think well within a box, a very competitive box that has been set up by other people and institutions to further someone else’s interests at the expense of the smart person.

Now that you know, go create the wealth you deserve … and maybe then I can start calling you “real smart”.

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Will Wall Street ever be fixed?

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When it comes to the financial industry, there is a major fallacy that exists: that Wall Street deals only with elite, rich people who deserve to lose their money, and that Mom and Pop are not directly affected by the antics and conflicted practices in the industry.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Even when Wall Street CEOs are hauled in front of Congress—as Lloyd Blankfein was amid the SEC fraud charges against Goldman Sachs, and as Jamie Dimon was after JPMorgan Chase lost $6 billion on bad trades—they try to make this argument. “We are all big boys.” “We are all sophisticated institutional investors who know exactly what we are doing.”

But stop and think about this for a second. Whose money is being played with anyway?

Look at just the recent scandals: Who gets affected when a county in Alabama trades a structured derivative with JPMorgan that goes sour, and brings the county closer to bankruptcy? Who gets impacted when a government such as Greece or Italy trades derivatives with Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan to cover up its debt and kick its problems down the road? Who ultimately loses when Morgan Stanley misprices the Facebook IPO and mutual funds lose billions of dollars of retirement and 401(k) savings?

Mom and Pop, that’s who.

Whose lives are affected when a sovereign entity such as Libya loses a billion dollars of its own people’s money betting on derivatives? Who loses when Barclays and other major banks rig the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), the interest rate that underpins trillions of dollars in student loans and mortgages? Whose savings evaporate when JPMorgan brokers sell underperforming mutual funds to their clients to generate more fees?

The list goes on and on and on. All this ultimately affects the citizens, teachers, pensioners, and retirees whose destinies are tied to these organizations that are managing their money. Mom and Pop are more affected by the bad behavior on Wall Street than anyone else—it is their money on the line. But how does Wall Street make so much money, anyway? Surely there are times when they must lose? Don’t count on it. Think about this:

There are certain quarters when a Wall Street bank makes money every single day of that quarter. Yes: ninety days in a row. One hundred percent of the time, it generates a profit. How is this even possible?

Two words: asymmetric information. The playing field is not even. The bank can see what every client in the marketplace is doing and therefore knows more than everyone else. If the casino could always see your cards, and sometimes even decided what cards to give you, would you expect it ever to lose?

Here’s how it happens: Because Wall Street is facilitating business for the smartest hedge funds, mutual funds, pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, and corporations in the world, it knows who is on every side of a trade. It can effectively see everyone’s cards. Therefore, it can bet smarter with its own money.

Worse, if Wall Street can persuade you to trade a custom-made structured derivative that serves the firm’s needs, it is as if your cards have been predetermined. Certainly not much scope for the casino to lose in this scenario.

Now consider where the gambling takes place. In a real casino, it is on a casino floor with cameras all over the place. Even if you don’t like Las Vegas gambling, it is regulated. On Wall Street, the gambling can be moved to a darkened room where nothing is recorded, observed, or tracked. With opaque over-the-counter derivatives, there are no cameras. In this darkened, smoke-filled room, there is maximum temptation to try to exploit clients and conflicts of interest. And this temptation and lack of transparency are what led to the global financial crisis in 2008.

Finally, think about the dealer. Your salesperson or trader might seem objective—like a friendly casino dealer who jokes around and is on your side—but there are times when he or she might be trying to steer you toward the thing that makes the casino the most money. If you were playing blackjack and you had 19, would you ever expect the dealer to tell you to hit? Sometimes, on Wall Street, they urge you to take another card.

Ironically, real casinos may actually be better regulated than Wall Street banks. The SEC and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) were not able to stop what led up to the crisis, and are still struggling to put appropriate measures in place to limit the conflicts I’ve described. With all these advantages, how can Wall Street ever lose? Even real casinos don’t make money every single day of the quarter.

As proof of this information advantage: Why do Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase mutual funds —housed in their respective asset-management divisions on the other side of the Chinese wall—underperform their peers, as measured by Morningstar? Why do some hotshot traders from banks such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan go out on their own, start their own hedge funds, and flounder? Because they no longer have the advantage of being able to see everyone’s cards. No more asymmetric information, no more batting a thousand, when you are out on your own without unfair advantage.

The reforms Wall Street is pushing back the hardest against are in the areas it knows are the most profitable: opaque derivatives and proprietary trading. But these also happen to be the areas that are most dangerous to the stability of the financial system. The Wall Street lobby has already spent more than $300 million trying to kill measures to regulate derivatives (so that they are brought into the light of day and become transparent on exchanges), and to eliminate proprietary trading so banks can no longer bet against their customers using their information advantage as prescribed by the Volcker Rule. Wall Street hates transparency and will fight as hard as possible to prevent it from coming.

I am a hardcore capitalist. I am all for people getting filthy rich and for businesses making as much money as possible. It is the fuel that keeps our economy growing and wealth should be an aspiration to motivate entrepreneurs everywhere. But I want it to be done fairly. I just don’t believe that capitalism is embedded with some kind of assumption that ethical boundaries should be pushed as far as possible, and that deceiving your customers is necessary to generate maximum returns.

I believe in a business model that is long-term-oriented, where there is an intrinsic fiduciary responsibility to do right by your clients so they will keep coming back to you. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is also better for business. You will make just as much money—but you will make it more slowly and steadily and transparently. This should be good for shareholders, too, who like a predictable revenue stream and a steadier book of business. Today’s take-the-money-and-run model is just not responsible, or sustainable.

How can it be that years after the crisis nothing has been done to fix any of this? Don’t we live in the greatest democracy in the world? People should be outraged that there is no political will to fix a problem that hurts everyone, enriches a super minority that has learned to rig the game, and could threaten the world with another calamity in a few years’ time.

People know that there is something deeply wrong with the system, but very few can put their finger on what the problem is. After the crash in 1929, the U.S. Senate conducted the Pecora Hearings, to investigate the causes of the crash. This inquiry led to real reforms that held banks accountable and eliminated the abusive practices that had caused the stock market crash. This was followed by decades of calm in the financial system.

If I ever achieve anything in my financial activism, I hope it will be to empower some people with enough understanding to call their congressman, congresswoman, or senator and ask this question: Why don’t you have the guts to do the same thing?

Share your thoughts…

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Is Greed Good for the Goal of Improving Society?

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Remember the infamous quote of villain financier Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street…back in 1987?

“I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed–for lack of a better word–is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms–greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge–has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed–you mark my words–will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA”.

I guess in this context, Gekko is using “greed” to define the constant desire for more, whether someone else has it or not.  He likens it to an evolutionary drive, that the need for more makes us figure out how to get it faster, more efficiently, and ultimately, easier.  And that this, in turn, results in benefits to everyone.

This is clearly a very particular definition of greed, and if you look at it from that perspective, it is indeed “good” in that it is a simple motivator that derives benefits beyond the individual actor.  In essence, it’s an “ends justify the means” argument.

Though this was quoted over two decades ago in one of the most controversial Hollywood movies ever, it resonates more than ever today… The only difference is that it is occurring at a much bigger scale.

So what do you make of it? Is greed good?

I guess as with any question like this, we need to start with the word “good.”

It is a fault of our language that “good” is most often used in an unqualified way. This is a symptom of our natural preference for dualistic thought. So what does unqualified ‘good’ mean?

Is greed good if your goal is monetary gain?  Absolutely, it’s the prime motivator.  Is greed good if your goal is running a successful soup kitchen?  Probably not.

Is greed “good” for the goal of living a happy life?  It could be, because it motivates you to improve your life in very real ways; on the other hand, there’s a fair amount of research that indicates over-attachment to material belongings draws your focus from other aspects of life that pay higher happiness dividends (personal relationships, self-improvement, etc).

Is greed “good” for the goal of improving society?  I doubt it.  I suppose it could motivate you to amass more resources, which you could then apply to humanitarian causes, but a very greedy person would probably also be unlikely to part with it.

Another way to use the unqualified “good” is as a sort of estimated sum of how effective greed is for helping you meet each of your goals, weighted by priority.  Let’s call this the “all-in-all” meaning.

So, is greed “good” in the all-in-all sense?  Will greed help you live a happier life?

From a wide-scope approach, it might be said that an economy of greedy people is an economy of motivated, productive workers.  This might be true, to a certain extent.  However, a society of extremely greedy people would mean a society of very stingy people; I doubt a country of greedy financiers, sitting on their money would lead to a robust, healthy economy.

But this is all about your average person.  Aberrations exist.  What if you’re not like most people?  What if poverty starvation is a serious possibility in your life?  Well then yes, greed would be a good thing to have.  What if material wealth is the big thing that makes you happy?  The only thing that makes you happy?  What if greed is your only motivator, the only thing that gets you out of bed and drives you to accomplish?  Then yes, having greed would be good in relation to your goals.  You might get better results though from examining your priorities and possibly changing your goals.

So in general, I would say that a little greed is good; it’s nature’s way of getting you to take care of your self-interests.  It’s also one of the major forces that keep societies progressing past the survival point.  Too much greed though poisons you.  There are countless examples of callous damage done to the world by the business community, and the only cause we can point to is human greed.

Bottom Line: I believe greed is ‘good’ only to the extent that it can be channeled productively.  Most of modern greed leads to people skimming money off of the productive and creative members of society; it results in many people with enormous intelligence and capability dedicating their lives to essentially worthless endeavors (such as predicting minor movements in stocks, bonds, currencies, etc.).  It also leads to frivolous lawsuits, ‘gaming the system’, overcharging and overbilling, etc.  It also leads individuals to steal and engage in other criminal activities.  Greed – when it leads one to invent, create, increase productivity, work harder, etc. can be good.  But it doesn’t always or even rarely has that effect.

I have no problem with people that amass large amounts of wealth — but if it pools up, it leads to problems. Wealth, like water, needs to move. Ideally that motion through society will be generated by the heavenly virtue that is classically contrasted with the deadly sin of greed.

Share your thoughts…

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Building a Crisis Resilient Financial System

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I consider the Financial crisis of 2007–2008 to be an inevitable consequence of “Moral Hazard” in the finance industry. Banks made profits on risky investments during the boom but taxpayers shared the losses when the investments went bad, thus encouraging riskier behavior.

In my view:

Capitalism generates wealth by allowing the free market to reward the good and punish the bad. If that can’t happen, capitalism does not work. Ideally, the banks which had lent irresponsibly and the individuals and businesses which had taken loans they could not afford would have all gone bankrupt and everyone would have learned their lesson.

Unfortunately, the financial system was characterized by Moral Hazard. The banks convinced themselves they could write bad loans and still make money, because they had devised complex financial instruments which spread the risk so widely that almost every bank in the world was exposed to it. The system became so interconnected that it wasn’t possible to let the “bad” parts of the system fail because they could not be distinguished from the “good” parts. Faced with the possibility of all their banks going bust or bailing them out, many national governments felt obliged to do the latter. This is textbook moral hazard because the entity bearing the losses is not the entity profiting from the original transaction.

The financial system may well have recovered more quickly if the bailouts hadn’t happened, but the suffering in the meantime would most likely have been unacceptable. Everyone who had savings would have seen them wiped out and a great many businesses would have ceased trading because they depend on credit for their cash flow, resulting in mass unemployment. Military coups in previously stable democratic countries could not have been ruled out and the prospect of extreme left or right wing groups taking control would have been a real possibility. The global economy was able to absorb localized banking collapses such as that in Iceland or of Lehman Brothers, but the human cost of a wider collapse would have been far worse.

The bailouts have been “successful” in the sense that some stability has returned, but they have not solved the underlying problem. Despite commitments in some areas to split up retail and investment banking and to improve capital ratios, the moral hazard remains because banks know they are too big to fail and will be bailed out again should the need arise. Only a total, irreversible disengagement of government from the financial sector could resolve this, and that is politically unrealistic. The main issue remains that the real cost of the bailouts is that they have reinforced the promise which was the root cause of the problem, that governments are there to rescue the banks when they fail.

How can we avoid another 2007-2008 type Financial Crisis in the Future?

I believe:

  • The section of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 repealed in 1999 which separated Commercial Banking from Investment Banking and from Insurance must be reinstated, because the Volcker Rule is too hard for regulators to operate/enforce. The bright line rule was much easier to enforce because the lines were very clear. Need to do something special across disciplines? Syndicate it. Money’s too fungible to rely on anything other than legally separate corporate entities, and having Bank Deposit Insurance (i.e. FDIC) on one side of the same house invites cross-subsidization of risk (i.e. abuse, moral hazard).
  • Too big to Fail Financial Institutions must not be allowed to exist – the “living will” requirement is silly nonsense, and will be found to have not been properly updated for a given such institution that gets in trouble in the future. If it’s too big to be allowed to fail, it’s too big to be allowed to exist at all, and the current ones must be cut down to size. This means setting hard limits in law, like the law that prohibits any single deposit-taking bank from having more than 10% of the deposits of the USA (Bank of America is just under the limit, and we might want to think about lowering that one to 5%). The limits must be stated in percentages of economic measures (e.g. GDP) rather than particular dollar amounts. This can be viewed as in the same economic policy vein as Antitrust Law: require a minimum number of entities (prevent cartels, oligopolies, and monopolies) to ensure competition and resultant efficient allocation of capital.
  • Once they’re separate again, Investment Banks must be prohibited from being Public Companies, i.e. selling shares of stock on the public markets to all comers – they must be legally restricted to being Corporate Partnerships. Investment banks walk on the high wire, taking lots of risk, and that risk shifts around much too fast for uninvolved investors to monitor the management – that’s a straight Principal-Agent Problem. I don’t want to restrict their ability to leverage to the skies if they want to – I just want to be able to not care if they screw up & go bust in so doing. If the managers are required to be the owners, the problem goes away. Hell, the managers have every incentive to monitor each other!
  • Credit Default Swaps are insurance, and must be regulated as such. I’m sure that a review of all financial instruments will find very little is actually new under the sun – just the names have been changed to avoid existing regulations (which are usually born out of hard-won experience). That has to stop, which is to say, again, bright line rules for what things are being bought and sold in broad categories, with established regulations on them.

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act fixed exactly none of these problems – it papered them over. Paul Volcker is a very, very smart economist and legendary former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, and his rule as he states it is the right thing in principle, but the regulations they wrote to define all the terms & conditions are so grey and messy (and probably pliable or go-around-able) that I think the point is probably lost. That’s why I want legally separated corporations in these differently regulated businesses back. Easy, obvious, bright-line rule.

Share your thoughts.

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My Thoughts Regarding Wealth Redistribution

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Much of the rhetoric we’re hearing in the media today talks about the huge gap between rich and poor. Politicians on both sides discuss this issue, but neither seems to get to the root of the problem.

It’s true that the gap between the richest 10 percent of the country and the remaining 90 percent is growing, but from that point on, most politicians get it wrong.

The issue isn’t a matter of “wealth redistribution”, nor is it about protecting current tax rates. The real issue at hand is that most Americans just don’t understand the rules of personal finance. They believe what they hear from friends or people selling them products. It comes down to a lack of financial education.

Schools are turning out students who are not fully prepared for the real world. They might know the basics of history, science, math, and English, but there is no real teaching of money in school. I majored in economics and finance and I spent 25 years on Wall Street honing my skills, so I know firsthand how boring the topics can be. But I’m not talking about the heavy theory or detailed rules. I’m talking about simple personal finance — the money issues that will come up for people in the real world.

It is a sad fact today that when students they break out on their own, they are left unarmed when sellers of credit come calling. To be clear, it’s not that people are dumb — the sly and ingenious credit card companies make handling credit seem easy. But either way, the new consumers don’t see or know that taking on debt at a young age is killing their financial security. Saving at a young age is critical. Simple facts about personal finance are not taught and thus bright people are caught making financial mistakes.

Plans to redistribute wealth take money from those who know what they’re doing financially and give it to people who don’t know basic financial principles. The subprime mortgage crisis was a perfect example of that. Hardworking taxpayers were paying to bail out banks and individuals who made negligent transactions. People who were financially ignorant were allowed to take big loans from equally ignorant (or in some cases, criminal) mortgage brokers. Greed from Wall Street made it worse. Had more people known about simple financial principles, this would not have happened, nor would we be arguing about how to pay for it.

It’s not a matter of fiscal theory or taxation. It’s all about education. I’m not a fan of big government, but this is one place the government can step in and help. If there were mandatory programs for graduation that included personal finance, our economy could be on the right track in a generation or two.

While no politician is doing much to solve the real issue here, I think that we as entrepreneurs can begin to fix this problem. Have lunch with your staff and teach them about personal finance. If you’re not up to teaching the class, bring in an expert. Make sure the expert isn’t selling something or else you could be adding to the confusion. Refer them to the Financial Policy Council and start attending our events.

If we start by educating our staffs, we can work to build a financially intelligent country and get back on track at the same time. Plus, isn’t this a great benefit to give to the people who make your company work? If you invest in their financial knowledge, I’m sure it will help your bottom line.

I strongly believe any redistribution of wealth by the government, in either the executive, legislative, or judicial branches, has no place in a free, democratic society.

Some of our politicians reach for all the favorite conservative buzzwords. But they fail to cite any evidence to refute the simple, and I think quite obvious, assertion that the marketplace works most efficiently when entry of new businesses is a realistic possibility and predatory pricing is outlawed. That’s what the antitrust laws are supposed to accomplish. And business people who compete fairly and squarely need not worry about them for a moment.

You know you are capitalism’s ideal puppet when winning the lottery is your only chance to realizing financial freedom.
Want to change the outcome and start truly learning the process? The Financial Policy Council is the place to be. See for yourself.

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